The Biggest Week in Birding lands in Northwest Ohio

A tiny, bright blue bird lands in a tree next to the boardwalk at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area outside Oak Harbor. 

The group of nearby birders standing on the boardwalk point out the creature, which is sitting so close they don’t need their binoculars to see its beautiful plumage. 
Those carrying cameras quietly zoom in and snap away, hoping to get the perfect shot of the bird. 

This bird, a black-throated blue warbler, has flown thousands of miles from the Caribbean and is on its way to spend the summer in the northern United States or Canada. Decked out in its breeding plumage, it is at its most brilliant. 

It’s also tired. The black-throated blue warbler and the many other types of colorful warblers, which could fit in the palm of a hand, land in marshes along Lake Erie to rest and refuel on insects and plants before making the long trek across Lake Erie.

This happens during spring bird migration, and the marshes along Lake Erie are some of the best places in the world to see a large number of birds in bright breeding plumage as they are passing through. It’s the reason the area is dubbed “The Warbler Capital of the World.” 

Thousands of people travel to Northwest Ohio each year to witness this migration during the Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day festival that takes place during projected peak migration of warblers, shorebirds and other species.

This year, the 12th annual Biggest Week is May 5-14. The festival is based in Northwest Ohio and includes guided bird walks, excursions to nature areas from Toledo to Huron and to parts of Southeast Michigan, nightly socials with refreshments and a banquet with a keynote speaker on a birding topic.

Registration for the festival is open online and costs $55 for non-members of Black Swamp, $35 for Black Swamp members, $10 for ages 9 to 18 and free for kids 9 and younger. Registration is not required to enjoy Magee Marsh and other birding areas during migration. 

“We try to grow the festival every year but not in terms of overall numbers,” says Kimberly Kaufman, director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which puts on the Biggest Week with Shores and Islands Ohio and Destination Toledo. “We try to make it better every year and make it more welcoming to more people, more inclusive.”

The birder prom, an evening of dancing and music, and the tattoo contest, where birders show off their birding tattoos, are some examples of events within the festival that appeal to wider audiences. Black Swamp works hard to make the festival inclusive to everyone, from those who have disabilities to those who don't have the means to spend a lot of money on the hobby to the LGBTQ birding community, she says.

“There’s a place for everyone to come and enjoy birding,” Kaufman says. “It’s still out there that sort of stereotype of a birdwatcher being somewhat of a wealthy older white woman. That’s changing a lot, partly because we’ve been among the thought-leaders and trying to do away with that stereotype.”

The festival brings together people from across the world. Past attendees have come from Europe, South America and beyond. A look at the license plates in the Magee Marsh parking lot during the festival shows large representations from across the United States and Canada.

The festival usually has about 1,500 registrants, but it and birding migration draw an estimated 75,000 to 90,000 people to the region each year, says Kaufman, citing Black Swamp’s research. Many do not register for the festival but still come to the area to enjoy birding during that time.

The attendees range from first-time bird watchers to seasoned birders who recognize the birds’ calls and carry large cameras and spotting scopes. Kaufman stresses that those of all skill levels are welcome. Usually, birders are thrilled to point out to others what they find, and sightings can extend beyond birds to beavers, turtles and other creatures.

“One of the things I love about birds is they are typically the intro to all the other gifts that are outside,” she says. “Birds are just an opportunity to step away from all those things and immerse yourself in nature.”

In addition to the health and enjoyment benefits to those who participate, the festival and bird migration create an ecotourism boom for Northwest Ohio during a time that traditionally has predated the busy summer season along the lake, says Kaufman and Larry Fletcher, president of Shores and Islands Ohio.
“It's really a critical component of our tourism economy here,” Fletcher says. “A lot of hotels, beds and breakfast, vacation rentals are full in that early part of May. Typically, they wouldn't be until later in the summer. “

Kaufman also was thrilled to learn that some birders have purchased condos and vacation homes in the area just so they have a place to stay during bird migration. 
Black Swamp’s economic impact research shows that the Biggest Week has an economic impact of more than $40 million on the region, she says. That number is from 2016, the most recent year for which Black Swamp had that data.

It includes money birders spend on lodging, visits to local restaurants, purchase of gasoline, shopping in local stores and related spending.

“We have all these businesses opening and putting people back to work,” Kaufman says. “I’m so proud to have Black Swamp Bird Observatory bringing so much good to Northwest Ohio through something so beautiful and joyful. There is just the happiest vibe that surrounds this.”

The ripple effect of the festival continues. It is found in the partnerships between Black Swamp and the tourism agencies and businesses who welcome people to the region. It is shown in the publicity that helps raise awareness for the need to protect and conserve wetlands along the lake.

And it is seen in the relationships between the people who enjoy the Biggest Week.

“We’ve had people that met here that are now engaged and have gotten married,” Kaufman says. “There are successful tour companies whose owners met and formed their company at the Biggest Week. It’s spawned friendships that last a lifetime.”